Gov. John Kasich is slated to sign Ohio's biennial budget today (it's a 5,000 page document), legislation that not only appropriates funding for the Buckeye State until 2013 but that also includes hundreds of pages of education-policy changes?most of which will move Ohio forward in significant ways.
The ultimate success of the budget's education reforms will depend greatly on the quality of implementation by the State Board of Education, the new state superintendent, and his team at the Ohio Department of Education. This may sound obvious, but it's worth hammering home: The budget puts an enormous amount of responsibility and faith into the Department of Education (to sponsor new charter schools, a move we opposed during the debate), the State Board (to approve model frameworks for teacher evaluation), and already thinly-stretched staffers who are still deciphering what the budget provisions actually mean.??
Now that the legislative debate has ended, where does Ohio stand on the big education-policy issues of charter schools, teacher policy, and school accountability and improvement? And why will implementation be so crucial? Let's dig in.
Charters & Choice
Fordham is a long-time supporter of school choice and believes in the expansion of quality options for families. However, we made it clear in recent months that we opposed proposals in the House that would have severely undermined accountability and the quality of authorizers and charter schools. Thankfully, the most egregious House language offered by some for-profit school-management companies was stripped out in the final budget deal, so Ohioans need not worry about charter schools or groups of individuals running schools without oversight. Plus, lawmakers strengthened accountability for charter-school authorizers, stipulating that those ranked in the bottom 20 percent of all sponsors cannot open new schools.
Other positive provisions include: shortening by one year the timeline for automatic closure (?death penalty?) of failing charter schools; putting in language to establish and fund a public boarding school; giving charter schools better access to unused district facilities; and dramatically expanding the number of EdChoice Scholarships available and the students eligible for them. The budget also launched a new special-needs scholarship program.
On the troubling side, the budget reinstates the Ohio Department of Education as an authorizer of charter schools, a duty it fully botched a decade ago, with many risks remaining today. These risks include an understaffed and ill-prepared charter-school office, conflicts of interest (the department now will sponsor schools, oversee the state's other charter-school sponsors, provide technical assistance of myriad sorts, and fund charters), and enormous pressure to sponsor charter schools quickly and without a proper vetting of applicants. However, a rigorous screening process, combined with strong leadership from the State Board and the interim and new state superintendent, can help mitigate these risks.?
While not as strong as language approved in the House, the final budget deal is still two steps forward for the Buckeye State when it comes to improving teacher effectiveness. Most critically, Ohio districts will now have to dramatically improve their teacher-evaluation systems, and must no longer make layoff decisions based on seniority alone.
Moreover, the legislature wants to see action quickly?maybe even too quickly. By December 31, 2011, the State Board must develop a model evaluation framework to guide the development of local evaluation systems. Those systems must be in place by July 2013, and must base 50 percent of a teacher's rating on the academic growth of his or her students. The systems also must rate teachers according to four tiers (accomplished, proficient, developing, and ineffective). School districts?rather than the state?will then decide how to tie policies on dismissal, tenure, retention, and pay to the evaluations. The primary state mandate governing all of this is that districts can no longer make seniority the predominant determiner of layoff decisions, except in cases of a tie (when teachers have the same rating).
Merit pay, one of the more controversial provisions debated during the budget process, will now only be mandated in districts, STEM schools, and charter schools participating in Race to the Top. Others will be encouraged, but not required, to create a performance-based salary schedule, and hopefully an abundance of teacher-effectiveness data accumulating over time will prompt local officials to reward highly effective teachers accordingly. Other provisions worth lauding include: Teach For America applicants won't face any new barriers to entry, and alternative licensure will extend across all grades (K-12, instead of only grades 4-12). Teachers at the state's persistently lowest-performing schools will be required to be tested on their subject-matter knowledge, but will not incur the costs of exams or be required to take the test more than once every three years provided they pass it. Finally, the Board of Regents' Chancellor will report aggregate student growth data and trace these data to teacher graduates from various teacher-prep programs.
Accountability and School Improvement
Fordham has long advocated holding all schools accountable for performance (not just charter schools) and the budget does that well. District schools performing in the bottom 5 percent of schools statewide for three or more consecutive years will undergo major restructuring (?turnaround?). The controversial ?parent trigger??whereby parents and families can precipitate school reconstitution?will be piloted within Columbus City Schools. Schools wishing to operate outside of traditional regulations and rules (imposed by the state, teachers unions, etc.) can now apply for status as innovation schools or zones in an effort to spur rapid change and achievement improvements that might not otherwise be possible in traditional and more regulated settings.
Finally, individual school performance as well as classroom expenditures (an attempt to measure return on investment) will be published by the state and schools will be ranked and recognized accordingly. This transparency?especially in spending as it relates to achievement?is a leap forward in terms of changing the dialogue in public education. Instead of measuring inputs and dollars in a vacuum (i.e., regardless of achievement), Ohio will begin asking, ?What bang are we getting for our buck??
Considering the fiscal climate in which this budget was written, it is an impressive piece of work that sets the conditions for moving Ohio's education system forward. There is still plenty that could be derailed through poor implementation by the Ohio Department of Education, the State Board, and individual school districts. But there is no doubt that the budget language moves Ohio towards a performance-based system of education that rewards success, highlights problems, and punishes abject failure. Let the hard work begin.
- Terry Ryan, Emmy Partin, and Jamie Davies O'Leary